Monday, January 7, 2019

The last year

      Two nights ago my husband and I went out to celebrate our anniversary... it had been two years since we met on a blind date for coffee and one year since we got engaged. We went to our favorite restaurant, Noa Noa, in Warsaw, Indiana to celebrate. As we ate our dinner we took turns answering questions that I found online to reflect on the past year ( Some questions were quite easy to answer, such as "What was the single best thing to happen this year?" We both answered, "Getting married." Others, such as "Pick three words to describe this past year," were more difficult. For it has been quite a year.
      The first part of the year was finishing up seminary. After being in school for so many years, I was tired and so it was a real struggle to make it to the end. But, I look back now and think that was the easiest part of the year for I knew what I was doing and what needed to get done to finish the semester and my academic career. After graduation, I struggled looking for jobs and trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was also very busy with my work with the Elkhart-Goshen Sanctuary Coalition, training people in my county on how to show up in protest if Immigration and Customs Enforcement came to make arrests. These "Rapid Response" trainings brought a lot of meaning and passion to my life, but also took a lot of energy and planning. Our group also wanted to host an event to give out the Solidarity Hotline number to the community and this mini-festival ended up taking place one week before my wedding.
     Jon and I got married in a beautiful outdoor ceremony on September 23, 2018 on Mt. Princeton near Buena Vista, Colorado. My grandparents built a cabin on Mt. Princeton in the early 80's and I have spent my life going there at least a week every year and from a young age, it has been my dream to get married there. We could not have asked for a more perfect weekend. Friends and family from across the country flew in to help us celebrate. The day itself had perfect blue skies and warm weather as we said our vows to each other. My parents officiated the service, which made it all the more meaningful. So many of our friends and family participated in the ceremony. For our reception, we went to the Buena Vista Community Center and enjoyed wood-fired pizza and a trail-mix bar. Instead of dancing, we had a corn hole tournament. After the reception, Jon and I stayed three extra days relaxing in the nearby town of Salida for a mini-honeymoon. So much energy and time went into the planning of this event and it was so gratifying to see the hard-work pay off and to enjoy the day with all the people I love most in the world, celebrating the sacred vows that Jon and I made to each other.
     A week after the wedding, I began a new job as Care Facilitator for homeless individuals at a community mental health center. The past three months in this position have been extremely challenging for me. I have felt much like I did when I lived in Croatia. I am doing something completely new and not receiving constant positive feedback like I did when I have been in school. School always came easy to me and was something that I knew how to do and how to do well. Being in a new career, in a field I have not studied, I did not know what to do right away. I have had to learn essentially a whole new language and set of skills. The learning curve has been high and it has been hard to give myself grace for not being perfect at it. In my position, I create my own schedule as I meet with clients and find ways to help them find resources such as housing, mental health services, physicians, and most of all hope.
     I think giving hope is the biggest part of my job and most difficult. I see people in crisis and walk with people through some of the most difficult times of their lives. I have learned that the majority of homelessness is caused by the lack of affordable housing. I don't have houses or apartments to rent out to my clients, but instead offer to walk with them their journey and assist them as they fill out applications and contact landlords. I listen as clients tell me difficult stories of difficulties they have gone through. I try to be there and be a support and tell them that life can get better. Some days I believe what I tell them as I have helped several people find housing and helped others get into needed medical services to address depression, anxiety, addiction, and other challenges. I have seen how a community can make all the difference in the world and how a little hope can go a long ways.
But there are others days I feel like I am giving out false promises and hope. My own faith is tested as I hear story upon story of abuse and witness injustice first-hand. I feel myself take on the burdens of my clients as I become emotionally invested in their lives. And it is hard. There is no other way to put it; my job is so hard. Giving out hope is hard in midst of an unjust world full of imperfect humans.
     Through all these things, it has definitely been Jon who has brought joy to my life. He is a beautiful human being who is my biggest cheerleader and my closest friend and confidant. He holds me close on the days I come home from work crying and does his best to listen, but not try to fix my problems. He pushes me to be my best self, while loving me at my worst. He works incredibly hard at his job as a carpenter for a local non-profit, while lovingly renovating our own house on the evenings and weekends. I love him more than I knew it was possible to love another human being. Entering this marriage relationship has taken a lot of work and energy, but it is the best work possible. I have even learned to love when we disagree and fight because it means we are vulnerable and committed to making this work even during the hard times. I don't know how I would have made it through this year without him.
     So here's to another year ahead. Here's to a year full of challenges and hopefully a year filled with hope. But most of all, here's to a year filled with love as I continue to explore the infinite abyss.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Transitioning after Seminary

      It has been almost 2 years since my last blog post. Going back and rereading old posts feel like I am talking with an old friend. It is fascinating to see where life has taken me since I started this blog. This blog is full of transitions and how I have experienced them. From my first European adventure studying in Belgium, to trips to Turkey and Iraq, moving to Croatia, and then beginning seminary, my life has been full. It has now been a month since I have graduated seminary and I am in the midst of my next life transition. However, this one does not include moving half-way across the world, but growing some roots here in Goshen, Indiana. I am in the midst of job searching, which honestly is scary and intimidating as I am trying to find something that fits my passions and education. I also spend much of my time wedding planning these days as I prepare to marry my best friend in September. We have also purchased a house that we are completely remodeling, so I am working on my carpentry skills. For now, however, I am to share my ministry formation report that I gave orally for my Senior Interview at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. In it I describe my journey over the past four years.

An Experience of Wholeness: A Ministry Reflection Report
     As I look back on the last four years of my time here at AMBS, it is incredible to see where this journey has brought me. When I applied to AMBS four years ago, I felt really lost in life. I didn’t feel like I knew who I was after graduating from my undergrad and being placed in new contexts. I ended a voluntary service position in Croatia two years earlier than expected because I had experienced isolation and depression. I had so many questions about God and was identifying myself as agnostic. I didn’t know what else to do and somehow felt a nudge to apply to seminary. I came feeling lost and broken with so many questions. I still have so many questions, but I am leaving with a sense of wholeness, unlike anything else I have experienced in my life. I will talk about my formation in the areas of personal, intellectual, spiritual, pastoral, and vocational growth, but these categories for me are all intertwined, which is what I found so meaningful about seminary. I was viewed as a whole person, not just a student. In this way, I was able to grow in all ways into a deeper sense of myself, and a deeper sense of whom I believe God is calling me to be. 
Personal formation  
I believe that AMBS gave me a lot of tools to grow as a person and to explore my own complex identity. One of the first requirements of LEAP was to take the Myers Briggs personality test. I am an ENFP. As an extrovert I like to spend most of my time with other people.  In Human Development and Christian Formation we took the MPD (Measures of Psychosocial Development) where I scored extremely high on intimacy and zero on isolation, which shows how much I value relationships and how much time and energy I put into relationships. This value on relationships has often guided my formation in many different areas, including academic studies and spiritual formation, as I would often try understand the people and situations around me. During my time in both of my internships I built many relationships with the Latinx community in Elkhart County. This led to my interest in immigration and studying it theologically and biblically. Relationships with close friends who were going through suffering led me to think about theodicy and study it and also spend time developing spiritual disciplines that could help me deal with the difficult emotions I was feeling in seeing their suffering. These emotions also point to the feeling and intuitive parts of my personality type.
  It is interesting that my enneagram personality, type 4, also points to a compassionate identity to those who suffer. Don Riso and Russ Hudson write in their book, Discovering Your Personality Type of my personality 4, “When Fours are more in balance, their exquisite attunement to their inner states enable them to discover deep truths about human nature, to bear compassionate witness to the suffering of others, or to be profoundly honest with themselves about their motives.” 4’s are known for their deep feelings and this came through during my time in seminary.  I learned how to use spiritual disciplines and have counted on my relationships to help me work through my feelings in a positive way. I cannot say enough how AMBS has been there for me. During one particularly difficult semester, I cried in five different professor’s offices. I believe this speaks to how comfortable I feel here and how AMBS truly is a place where we are seen as whole people. My perceiving side of my personality has also been encouraged at AMBS as I have learned to respond to new ideas and integrate studies. Although I have also been stretched into a judging person as I manage to complete multiple tasks and stay organized while juggling academic work and community work. 
Another part of my personal formation is how I recognize myself as a white person of privilege. Michael Brown was shot just before I entered seminary and in many ways I believe that this country was beginning new conversations about white supremacy and the way that racism works in the country and in our own lives.  This question of how to be an ally as a white person was something I began exploring right away with Malinda Berry’s class on Church and Race. This question of identity led me to explore theology in new ways, as I wanted to understand other views of how to see God in the world and see the places where the Bible works on the side of the oppressed. This would continue to be a theme as I did two internships where my supervisors were Latino and I worked with Latinx communities. This identity also has gone into vocational call. 
Intellectual formation 
My view of the Bible has shifted drastically in the last four years. When I began seminary I had a narrow view of the bible. Growing up in a Mennonite household I knew the Sermon on the Mount and appreciated the peace witness, but I had trouble with violence I saw in the Old Testament and the way fundamentalist youth leaders of mine used the Bible for their own agenda and said that there was only one way to interpret it. My first semester, however, introduced me to new interpretations. In Christian Theology 1, Jamie had us read three different interpretations on different theological topics, including a traditional interpretation, an Anabaptist interpretation, and then interpretations from feminists, people of color, and other. I was encouraged to explore different ways of thinking about God and thinking about the Bible. I learned how to try to understand different positions, even the position of my former youth leaders whom I had felt deeply betrayed by, but also develop my own thoughts and stances on the different theological themes. I feel better prepared to work with diverse understandings of the Bible and still build good relationships built on common faith in Jesus. As Mary Shertz said recently in Biblical Foundations of Peace and Justice, everyone who reads the Bible has the right to speak to what the Bible says. The Bible is relevant and it is proper to argue about what it means. 
In Psalms class, I was invited to see God in new ways as I discovered ways that humans have been using poetry to describe their relationship with God. I was amazed to discover in the laments where people cried out to God for God not doing God’s job. I had grown up hearing that we should not question God, but here in our sacred texts, people were doing this. The laments did not usually end, though, with questions, but with thanksgiving. Safwat encouraged me to explore this complexity. Through my academic study of the Bible, I have discovered a God much more complex and bigger than I had previously imagined. 
My classes also encouraged me to think about my whole being. In cultural hermeneutics I was able to think more about my job at the local food coop as I thought about it from a Christian view-point. In Suffering and Hope allowed me to think critically about questions I have concerning suffering in the world. I was also able to make connections to the world around me as I took interactive classes in Egypt, on the Migrant Trail, studying immigration, and then on the Trail of Death where I got to think about indigenous people and their connection to God and the Bible. These classes not only had me think academically about the world around me, but spiritually. Education for Peace and Justice led to including worship practices within academics and even though I did not want to do this at first, I soon came to appreciate the importance of the inclusion of spiritual practices with academic as it attends to the whole person and places emphasis on one’s relationship with God. 
Spiritual formation 
My pursuit of studies was also very much intertwined with my spiritual formation from the beginning, as Safwat, through advising sessions, always encouraged me to think of issues academically and spiritually.  This started my first semester as one of my best friends had a brain tumor. I remember going into Safwat’s office crying. He encourage me to explore this suffering biblically and academically but reminded me that this is also a personal issue and I found it so meaningful that he prayed for me and my friend and encouraged me to find spiritual practices to help me as I processed this news. I felt so supported during this time, which was much different from the year before when my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and I found myself without any support in a foreign country. My friend has now been tumor free for three years and is in good health, but this experience really impacted my spiritual and academic practices and helped me to continue to think about suffering in new ways as I continue to witness the affects of Parkinson’s on my dad. 
Spiritual practices were a part of many of classes including Human Development and Christian formation, and Suffering and Hope. In Human Development and Christian Formation I was able to explore different practices. I discovered practices such as walking the prayer labyrinth that helped me to slow down and just be. This was especially helpful in times of stress and when I needed to do inward processing. I also found that when I used running as a spiritual discipline, I found myself praying more and able better handle other situations because I had converted anxious energy into physical exercise and prayer at the same time. My fiancé and I began praying together early on in our relationship, which helped build a solid foundation for our relationship. I still find our prayer time together one of the most meaningful parts of our relationship as it brings us into deeper relationship with each other and with God. Art played an important role in Suffering and Hope as a spiritual discipline as Malinda helped us to process information through this medium. I continued to use this in other classes to take in the information on a spiritual basis such as my final project of the Book of 12, where I painted the main themes for all the minor prophets to give me a visual to remember them by. When I find myself doing spiritual practices on a regular basis, I find myself more in tune with my body and spirit, which helps me in my relationship with both God and others. 
Pastoral identity  
I am in the MDiv track, peace studies partly because I do not want to be a pastor in the traditional sense. However, I do believe I have developed a pastoral identity in the past four years as I have increasingly seen myself as a ministering person. I my first internship at Goshen College, my supervisor Gilberto Perez wrote the following as part of his evaluation: “Julia continues to search for the meaning of role of pastor. Her interest appears to be in small group work and community engagement.” However, in a different section he wrote, “Her presence was calm and contemplative. At a time when students are experiencing significant life transition Julia created a space for students to be still and consider the changes at hand. I believe Julia has strong potential for community life pastoral work.” I believe that this points to my pastoral identity, even if I did not recognize as such at the time. 
I have found my pastoral identity emerging as other changes have occurred over the past four years. I find myself praying a lot more. In meetings I facilitate for the Elkhart-Goshen Sanctuary Coalition, I often start and end in prayer now and have even cancelled my agenda when it appeared that my team was dealing with issues that we needed to pray about as a way to support each other. Another part of my emerging pastoral identity is my focus on building relationships and understanding the physical, as well as spiritual needs that I see in others. In both my internships, I have worked with vulnerable Latinx people who have experienced suffering in their lives. Even as I have worked to distribute resources about community organizations that work with immigrants, I have tried to also include theological resources and to think deeply about the church’s role in ministering to these communities in ways that the gifts of immigrants can be shared. I believe that the role of recognizing gifts and helping people to learn how to use their gifts and skills to benefit the community is a pastoral role. This role fits well into my hope to become a community organizer. 
Professional formation 
I think that one of the most influential parts of my seminary experience has been my two internships. At Goshen College’s Center for International and Intercultural Education I had the chance to explore more deeply working with communities of color. My supervisor Gilberto Perez played an important role in helping me understand my identity as a white leader and being able to enter into situations that made me uncomfortable, but use that vulnerability to connect to people at a personal level. I did this through taking attending and leading discussions in a leadership seminar for freshman of color at Goshen College. I also got to work closely with Rocio Diaz, the community outreach coordinator and worked with her to start a support group for Latina women. Even though I struggled in my Spanish and being a white woman, I found acceptance in this group and discovered ways to connect beyond cultural boundaries. I also got the chance to work with white students who were concerned about social justice but did not know how to approach students of other racial and cultural backgrounds. Through this work, I realized my passion for working with the community and finding ways to connect people and build relationship across cultures. 
My second internship was with MCC Great Lakes. I chose this internship after I did a Borderlands tour with Saulo Padilla and Jorge Vielman, who became my supervisors. I wanted to explore more deeply what it meant to work on immigration through a faith perspective. Specifically, I wanted to know how churches could connect their theology to taking specific actions. Through this I began to research a possible immigrant resource center that could help locally, and was a part of the formation of the Elkhart-Goshen Sanctuary Coalition. In these leadership roles, I found myself connecting both with white churches and the Latino community. I was invited many times to speak at churches and used sermons and papers I had written in my classes at AMBS. Through this internship, I found a way to practically apply my seminary studies and grow as a faith-based community leader. 
Vocational Call
As I have said, I do not feel called to be a pastor in the traditional sense, but through my internships and academic work, I have learned that I like working with pastors and communities. Thus a faith-based Community organizer seems to be a good fit for me. I want to explore further of how faith communities actively work out their faith for social justice. I want to help people work through the theology of peace and justice while actively working for it in the world. I’m not sure exactly how this vocational call will work out after seminary, but I am exploring ways that I can keep on organizing and working with the Elkhart-Goshen Sanctuary Coalition and other groups I am now a part of to do this work that I believe God is calling me to. Immigrant justice is so important right now in this political climate and it is so interesting to see how God has used my time at AMBS to prepare me for this work right now when it’s needed so badly. 
As I continue forward after seminary, I want to keep exploring new academic work and keep reading, especially as immigration studies continues to become more popular in academics. I believe that this will be important so that my activist, community work is solidly grounded in good theology. I want to keep focused on the bible and continue thinking of what it means to be a ministering person in all the work that I do. I also need to keep exploring the complexity of issues and always be willing to hear the other side and being open to change. I know that sometimes this can be difficult for me, but it is important as I relate to all different sorts of people both in my own culture and others. Only by being in relationship with others can work move forward together. Even as I have shared about my spiritual practices, I admit that I am not always the best at continuing practices. Even this semester, I have found myself not engaging the practices I know are beneficial to me in times of stress and depression. I want to continue to work at becoming better at engaging practices during all periods of my life. 
As I’ve talked about the wholeness I’ve found in my life during seminary, I cannot help but think of the word “shalom.” For my final project in God’s Shalom I wrote the following as my definition of Shalom. I believe that this fits well with the growth I have experienced in my own life in the past four years. I wrote: 
Shalom = God’s Gift of a Deep Wellbeing for all of Creation
  • Lifestyle of following Jesus’ example of nonviolence, especially in the midst of empire
  • Studying Scripture with new eyes : focus on the Biblical call of peace
  • Taking a second look at history : finding other viewpoints 
  • Truth-telling from all with a particular focus from the margins
  • Significant consideration of power unbalances 
  • Creative imagining of reconciliation 
  • Living into the messiness together

Monday, August 29, 2016

Changes during a Busy Summer

            It has now been five years since I first started this blog. In the next couple of months, I am hoping to go back and reread all my entries. I think it is good to review all the places I’ve been and the ways I have changed, but also stayed uniquely myself. I know I certainly have learned a lot in the last five years and continue to grow as I continually find life changing.
            This summer has felt like a lot of change for me. All the transition has been a lot to process, especially since I have been sick for the last half of the summer. I had been having a lot of digestive problems and fatigue and finally after trying to change my diet and lifestyle went to the doctor to find out I had strep throat. Apparently you can have strep throat without having a sore throat or a fever. I am just glad there is a cause to my problems and hopefully being on antibiotics, I can feel better before my semester begins tomorrow.  
            The summer began really well as I participated in Mennonite Central Committee’s Borderlands Learning Tour, where I learned all about immigration issues, and then walked 75 miles from the U.S./Mexico border to Tucson, Arizona on The Migrant Trail, to bear witness to all the immigrants who have lost their lives in the desert due to unjust immigration policies. I then spent the rest of the summer studying the theology of immigration and talked a couple of different times at my home church in Ohio and my current church in Indiana. I will post those reflections on the blog soon. After Arizona, I spent a week with my family in Colorado. High points included hiking two 14ers (mountains over 14,000 feet) with my brothers and hanging out with my two-year-old nephew Ethan. He lives in Kansas so sadly I do not get to see him nearly enough.
            The other two trips I made this summer was a long weekend to St. Paul, Minnesota, where I officiated the wedding of two of my best friends from college, Lisle and Elias. I still cannot believe that they asked me and feel so privileged to have been a part of that really special day. Although I am in seminary, in the Mennonite church, you are not ordained until a couple of years after you have been serving in your ministry. So I took the thirty seconds to get my online ordination with the Universal Life Church. The entire weekend was full of so much love and fun. I got to catch up with some of my closest friends from college as well as make new friends. The second trip I made was also for a wedding, this time for Bekah (my college friend with whom I toured Turkey with in January) in Richmond, Virginia. I then made stops to visit other college friends and cousin Cara in Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia, Washington DC, and a night in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
            The rest of my summer I filled with dogsitting and working at the co-op with a few trips to Ohio to see my parents. My parents are moving to Kansas in a couple of weeks, so I have had to spend time sorting through all my stuff still in Ohio and deciding which to keep, throw away, or give away. Although it is a necessary task and it was fun to see old artwork and journals, it was very tedious. It has also been hard to think about my parents moving far away. I am used to being the one leaving. I think it will be great that they will be near their grandchildren and my grandma, but I have loved being able to see my parents every few weeks at least, and being able to run off to Ohio (2.5 hours from where I live) when life seems overwhelming. It also feels like the end of childhood as I will no longer have a bedroom at their new house and all my stuff will be in Indiana.
            One of the hardest parts was having to put down my 13-year old cat, Mellie. She came as a stray when I was twelve years old, meaning that she has been a part of my life for the majority of my life. She was getting old, though, and was doing very well and would have been unable to live through and adjust to a move. Although I knew there was no other choice, it was so hard to take her to the vet. I still feel some guilt as I remember trying to calm her in the car by saying it would be okay, only to break down crying because it was not okay. But as the vet brought her in with her IV, she was purring and she died peacefully in my arms—the person who loved her best and the person she loved the most. In many ways, it was a very beautiful ending to a good life.
            The other transition has been moving across town. It might not seem like a huge transition, but with everything else happening in my life, it has been rough. My old landlord sold my house and so my housemates and I all found new places to live (one of whom is currently hiking the Appalachian Trail and another begun voluntary service in Colorado). If you remember, I really loved my old housemates and the house itself and so I was not too happy about the move. I am now in a house near the Goshen College campus living with three other girls. They are all very nice, but I think it is going to take a while before I feel settled and happy there. It is especially annoying because it has nearly doubled my commute to school, although biking to downtown is now easier and safer than before.
            With all the changes, trips, and sickness I am pretty exhausted. I feel like I need a vacation just to recover from the summer. But classes start tomorrow and this semester promises to be full. I am taking nine credit hours and have an internship doing immigration work in Elkhart County, as well as continuing working at the co-op and my church. I am starting my second year as a volunteer teacher for English as a Second Language classes that happen once a week at a church in Elkhart. I also leave in a week for a 40-hour training in immigration law in Akron, Pennsylvania as part of my internship. I am really excited about all of these things, as well as the routine and cooler weather that fall brings, but I do wish I was feeling more ready.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Identity in the Egyptian Context

As a final post on my time in Egypt, I am posting my final reflection paper I wrote as part of the course work. I don't expect many people to read the entire post, but I know there are some people from my group who would be interested, as well as others who might want to know how I've incorporated my encounter with Egypt into my own life and thoughts about identity.

 Identity in the Egyptian Context
          Identity is a multi-layered, complex part of being human. Many aspects of identity are given to people at birth, such as gender, race, nationality, sexuality, and ethnicity to name a few. All of these factors shape who we are and how we interact with the world around us. These factors also influence how others view and treat us. However, we also make choices that help define our identity and who we are in the world. During my time Egypt, I witnessed first-hand many of the different layers of identity that exist. As I encountered Egypt through the people I met and the places we visited, I saw how religion, nationality, and history, even ancient history as it exists in Egypt, plays an important role in defining our identity as well as our choices. In this paper I examine many different issues of identity that Egyptian Christians face, and how I experience my own identity. Identity changes the way we see the world and the way the world sees us. Through my time in Egypt I found similarities in identity as well as deep differences that opened up my worldview to expand my understanding of identity and how the context around us shapes us in many different ways and how we can also shape the world around us.
Tradition and history as part of identity
            The first full day of my time in Egypt included an introduction to Coptic Christian identity with the tour of Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church. In this space, I saw in person the way that history, tradition, and art play an important role in the identity of Coptic Christians. The outside of this church, also known as the Hanging Church, has mosaics depicting different biblical scenes that took place in Egypt, as well as important events in Coptic Christian history. These mosaics, which are fairly recent additions to the courtyard, show that the history of Christianity in Egypt goes back a long ways and that this history is still important today. As I walked through this courtyard and into the church, I stood in awe of the history and tradition that was right in front of me. Even though a lot of the church has been rebuilt and renovated throughout its history, the deep history and set of traditions could be felt in the air, just walking through. Inside the church, every space was filled with sacred designs and art that depicted history, tradition, and symbolism. Coming from Mennonite churches in the Untied States, I am not used to such decoration and icons. However, through the art and carvings on the doors, walls, pulpit, and even the benches, I witnessed depictions of how God has worked through the life of the Church in Egypt. This art made me feel closer to God as it witnesses to Christians today of the power and glory of God. The art itself is part of a long tradition in the Coptic Church and serves to be a sacred space where Christians can encounter God.
            The sense of history and tradition was amplified with our next stop at Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church. This is the spot where tradition says that baby Jesus stayed with his parents after fleeing to Egypt when King Herod ordered the killing of all children in and around Bethlehem as written in the Matthew 2:1-18. Although this fact cannot be verified, I could see how proud the Egyptians we encountered in the church were of the fact that their ancestors welcomed and hosted baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph. In this story, Egypt is seen as a place of refuge. This identity of being the host of baby Jesus is important to some of the Coptic Christians we met and thus the story of Jesus staying at that church has been passed from generation to generation and is believed by many to be true. This tradition of being host has become a part of the Egyptian Christian identity.
            A major part of the trip was spent visiting ancient Egyptian sites including the pyramids of Gaza, the Valley of the Kings, the Abu Simbel temples and many, many more. These sites were incredible to behold in person and are a source of national pride for many Egyptians. This shared common history is one source of identity for most Egyptians, regardless of religion. Jacques van der Vliet writes that this shared identity is called “pharaonism” in academic terms and “is a way of claiming a deeply rooted national identity that transcends the religious opposition between Egypt’s Muslim majority and its indigenous Christian minority.”[1] The Egyptians I encountered were deeply proud of the ancient history of Egypt and were happy that we as foreigners got the chance to visit these ancient sites. Even as we would discover deep differences between different groups in Egypt and how religion plays a huge role in identity formation, I witnessed how history also defines ones identity and can be a bonding point for people.
Paradox of identity
            Although ancient Egypt can be a bonding point for all Egyptians, Egyptian Christians also struggle with identifying with the Egypt in the Bible. Even as Egypt is host to baby Jesus in the gospels, Egypt is better known for being the monster in the story of the Exodus. The complexity of identity comes to the forefront as Egyptian Christians have had to process what it means to be able to identify as the Israelites in the Exodus story, as part of God’s chosen people and identify as Egyptians, who were the oppressors in the story. Safwat Marzouk writes in Egypt as Monster in the Book of Ezekiel, “Reading the Hebrew Bible in a Christian Egyptian context is an identity question.”[2] He goes on to describe how some Egyptian Christians have thrown out the story of the Exodus, not wanting to deal with this issue of identity. These Christians believe that by ignoring these texts, they are able to stay true to their nationalistic sense of identity of being Egyptians. For many, these ancient texts do not have anything to do with current Egypt.[3] Another approach that Christian Egyptians take that Marzouk describes is an allegorical interpretation; “they argue that Egypt in the Bible is just a symbol for something else.”[4] These Christians will say that they identify with Israel, because it stands for the good, while Egypt in the story stands for the evil. They are able to identify with their religious identity instead of their political identity. Marzouk is critical of this approach because by only reading the text allegorically, Egyptian Christians ignore the historical realities.[5] The identity of an Egyptian Christian is one of paradox when it comes to the Bible as seen here.
            My identity as an American Christian also comes with a similar paradox. Obviously, the United States is not mentioned in the Bible and was not a political state during the writing of the Bible. Growing up with the Exodus story, I have always identified with Israel in the story and have not given the Egyptians in the story much thought. However, learning about Egyptian Christians struggle with this paradox, I have been able to make connections. The United States today could be described as a powerful empire in the world. In many places in the world, the United States is seen as the oppressor. When I was traveling in Egypt, I was seen as a representative of the United States. Part of my own identity is being a white, middle-class American. This is not an identity I chose, but it is a part of myself that I have to live with. I live with a paradox of being a pacifist Christian and at the same time, a citizen of a country whose foreign policy and military hurts a lot of people throughout the world. Instead of denying a part of my identity, I need to be able to see my own identity as complex and always changing. Marzouk writes, “When one sees identity as something fluid and hybrid and recognizes that formulating an identity is an ongoing process, one is better able to live with paradox.”[6] Learning about the Egyptian Christian identity and visiting Egypt as a white, privileged, American Christian, allowed me to recognize the paradox within my own identity and think deeper about the complexity and fluidity of having both a national and religious identity that sometimes clashes.
Identity as a minority group
            Although I recognized some similarities between Egyptian and American Christians as both groups have to live with a paradox of having national and religious identities, the Egyptian situation is different as Christians there are a minority group in the country and face some persecution and discrimination. During the trip we met with several different groups of Christians, both Orthodox and Protestant. Three encounters were very significant to me as I learned about being a Christian in a country with a repressive government and Islam as the majority religion. The first encounter was with Dr. Rev. Andrea Zaki, the head of the Protestant Churches in Egypt. He talked about the tough political situation Egypt was in and how many Christians were supportive of the current government because it was better than Hosni Mubarak who was in power for years and then the short time after the revolution when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power. The current government has put many people in jail unjustly and has resorted to violence. However, the church in Egypt wants to simply survive and thus has a choice to support the lesser of two evils or speak out against injustice and face greater persecution and violence. The church in the United States cannot comprehend this, as Christianity is the majority religion. I can speak out about peace and nonviolence, but I do not live in a place were violent persecution is an actual threat. The church in Egypt has to make choices that I, as a privileged American Christian, cannot fully understand because of the political context it is in.
            The second encounter that emphasized the difference between American and Egyptian Christians was with Tharwat Wahba, one of the professors at the Presbyterian Seminary in Cairo. During a question and answer time the professor mentioned that foreign friends will sometimes ask about the state of LGBTQ issues within the church in Egypt and he tells them that the church in Egypt is simply trying to survive and does not have the time and energy to be having those types of discussions. Although I would give a small push-back to this as I have read about the violence and persecution that LGBTQ persons have faced in Egypt, I think he makes an important point. The church in Egypt has a different identity than the church elsewhere in the world and is facing different problems. I can say that the Egyptian church needs to look into some of these issues, but I can only say that because I am sitting in my nice home in the United States, not having to worry that I could go to jail for something I say. I do not have to worry about being discriminated against for my beliefs. I have the privilege of being able to think theologically about issues facing the LGBTQ community because I do not have to think of what real persecution the church will be facing tomorrow. Egyptian Christians do not have this privilege. 
            The third encounter was with Reverend Gendi Rizk, the pastor of the El-Saraya Church in Alexandria. He told the story of how a new church was being built after years of jumping through bureaucratic hoops. However one day, he showed up and there was bulldozer in front of the church. At first he described the anger he felt, but then he decided that the church in Egypt has been there for two thousand years and they had already waited years to build the church, so it was okay to wait longer and retaliating against the people destroying their building would not do much good. It was interesting to hear this story for different reasons. First, it confirmed the real persecution that exists against Christians in Egypt. This persecution is not just imagined, but is a part of life there. Second, it showed the patience and resiliency of the Christians in Egypt. On one of the first days, our leader Dr. Safwat Marzouk asked the group why the church has survived in Egypt, while it has disappeared in other countries in the Middle East. One answer I would give to this question is this patience and resiliency that I witnessed through Rev. Rizk as well as through other Christians, Coptic and Protestant, that we encountered while in Egypt. The Christians I encountered had all experienced persecution and discrimination in different ways, but yet stories like Rev. Rizk’s was not uncommon. In the midst of hardship, Egyptian Christians have remained true to what they believe is the core of the gospel, which is to love others and meet human needs.
            Christian-Muslim relations is a big conversation in Egypt. One’s religion is put on your identity card at birth. As mentioned, there is real persecution and discrimination towards to Christians from the Muslim majority. However, this is not the whole picture. On our last day in Cairo, we visited Al-Azhar University, a prestigious Islamic institution, and met with one of the top scholars. He emphasized that Islam is a religion of peace and that the Quran teaches religious tolerance. Our hosts at the university showed us great hospitality and served us fresh juice and snacks, even as we were only there for an hour. They welcomed questions and encouraged more dialogue between Christians and Muslims. These Muslims we met saw their faith as a large part of their identity, but one that promoted peace within the country. They spoke harshly against Islamic terrorist groups. Many Muslims feel this way and see Egyptian Christians as their neighbors. The same is true of many Christians. In a study by Yvonne Haddad and Joshua Donovan published in Studies in World Christianity, they found that the Copts in Egypt were living peaceably with their Muslim neighbors. There are cases of discrimination, but Copts identify themselves as Egyptians and do not want Western interference as advocated by some of the Diaspora currently living in the United States.[7] Through researching and learning about Muslim-Christian relations, I was able to see that identity is more complex than just claiming a minority, persecuted position. One’s identity is caught up in a web of relationships with the other, which is both a large group such as Muslims or the government, as well as your neighbors. Even as I had three encounters with Christians discussing discrimination and persecution, I also witnessed people trying to live peacefully with their neighbors and work together to create a better future for their country.
Christian identity in action
            Learning how to live peacefully together is one way that I witnessed Egyptian Christians putting their Christian identity into practice. The emphasis on the identity of Christians as acting out the simple message of the Bible was made by Rev. Rizk and exemplified by actions he and his church in Alexandria have taken. Rev. Rizk talked about how he has studied theology in both Egypt and the United States, but his home church in Egypt has influenced his theology the most. He told our group that he sees that the call of Christians is to act as Christ and meet the human needs that exist within one’s community. He then told us of the different ways that his church tries to live this call. He first described how the church started a nursery school for members of the congregation because both parents worked and needed a place for their children to go. Then, the church started a school for people with special needs because a family in the congregation had a child with autism and in Egypt there is a stigma against this group of people and very little in the way of educational services. The school has grown to reflect the current society with the majority of the students coming from Muslim families. The school works to provide skills to people of all ages with special needs and also works with the families to incorporate the people into society and work against the negative stigma. The church sees both the nursery school and the special needs school as a part of their call of being Christians. However, the church also works on church planting, believing that evangelism is also an important part of the gospel and this is not at odds with the social services they provide. Opening these schools and church planting are specific actions that the church in Egypt has taken to live out its Christian identity.
            Other organizations we met with have also found ways to live out what it sees as its Christian identity. While in Cairo, we met with CEOSS, the Coptic Organization for Social Services, which is a large nonprofit serving 250 communities throughout Egypt working in the areas of development, culture, and resource development. The organization was started and is run by Christians, but sees its mission as much broader. The mission as stated on their website is “to promote the sanctity, equity, and harmony of life. It seeks to contribute to the transformation of society by nurturing moral and spiritual awareness, enhancing a sense of belonging, promoting respect for diversity, addressing conflict, and advancing social justice for individuals and communities.”[8] The organization sees this mission as part of the gospel that is for all people, not just Christians. They emphasize that they work for all Egyptians, regardless of religion or social status. I was impressed to hear about all the work that CEOSS does and how it is responding to the needs that are in Egyptian society. They do not give any direct handouts, but instead support other organizations that do, and try to address some of the root causes of conflict in the country by such actions as facilitating dialogue between Christians and Muslims.
            Another example of where I saw Christians living out their identity was a visit to Manshiyat Naser, better known as Garbage City. This area of Cairo is home to some of the city’s poorest people who have been the outcasts of society whose main occupation is that of garbage collecting. Although many of the main streets have been cleaned, there was still garbage everywhere, including inside the houses. However, at the end of the road were two huge churches built out of the rocks. There, we learned the incredible story of a Coptic priest who felt a call from God to witness to the garbage collectors and live within that community. He saw the humanity in the people there and today the church includes sixty thousand families. Instead of a place of garbage and poverty, I saw the neighborhood as place where God’s love was able to take hold and transform lives. As we talked with a man who grew up there, we learned how life there is still really hard for the people, but the church has made things better. The church works to meet basic human needs as well as provide a space for anyone to feel welcome. Through its witness to the city’s marginalized and outcasts, the church has grown to huge numbers and is living out its Christian identity in a radical way.
My changing identity
            My time in Egypt changed the way I look at identity. First, while living in my own specific context in the United States, I often forget how much my identity is influenced by the history and traditions of my family, my nation, and my religion. The United States does not have as old of a history as Egypt, but its history is still a large source of identity for Americans. I am influenced by this history in many ways that I have recognized and other ways that I am still figuring out. Within my Mennonite faith, I can see very clear ways that tradition, especially the pacifist tradition, has largely influenced my identity and my actions. Growing up in this specific tradition has changed the way that I see the world around me. Within the larger Christian tradition, my time in Egypt allowed me to see how my identity has been shaped by biblical history. I felt at home in the churches we visited because the history of God’s people is also my history. I could celebrate with the church in Egypt because these were my brothers and sisters in Christ. History and tradition have a profound impact on identity.
            My time in Egypt also made clear how there is often a paradox in our identities. Identity overlaps many different areas of our lives and often these different identities do not mesh well together. In both Egypt and the United States, I see how religious and national identities are often at odds. Sometimes you have to choose which identity you act from, while at the same time, it is important to be able to find ways to recognize and live in the paradox. This is not an easy task, but I am encouraged that it is possible from the ways I witnessed many Egyptians authentically trying to do this. I also recognize, though, that this paradoxical identity changes when one is part of a minority group. After being in Egypt, I am able to more fully recognize the privilege of living in the majority. As a white, middle-class, heterosexual American, I do not face many of the daily struggles that minority people do. My privilege allows me to concentrate on large-scale justice issues because I do not face discrimination and struggle on a daily basis. The trip reminded me of my privilege and how this also impacts my identity and my actions in real ways.
            Finally, as I witnessed Egyptian Christians making choices to live out their Christian identity by meeting simple human needs and trying to be Christ’s love to the world, I was inspired. We are all given a certain identity in the world, but we also have the freedom to make choices of how we live out that identity. I hope that I am different because of my time Egypt, witnessing people living out the simple gospel message. I want to continue to find ways to live out my own Christian identity in the context of where I am now in the United States. I live in a very different context than Egypt, but there are needs all around me and my choices can affect lives. Just as my identity influences my choices, my choices and actions help determine my identity in the world.
            My time in Egypt allowed me to witness many different layers and aspects of identity. History and traditions still shape identity today and can be used to remind people of a shared identity. Identities are also often paradoxical. Egyptian Christians have to live with the paradox of identifying both with Egypt and Israel in the exodus story and what it means to have a national identity that is at times at odds with a Christian identity. American Christians also face a similar paradox as we want to bring peace to the world, but are citizens of a country with an oppressive military and foreign policy. Idenitites are also largely defined by social location and holding a minority identity changes the way one acts in the world. Egyptian Christians face many different problems than American Christians and are impacted greatly by their position of being a minority group in Egypt. However, people also have a choice of how to live out their identity in the world. I witnessed Egyptian Christians living out the gospel message of meeting needs in society and showing Christ’s love. Identity plays a huge role in our lives and is complex and multi-layered and often presents paradox. However, by recognizing the many different aspects, we can find ways to live out our identity in ways that make this world a better place.

            [1] Jacques van der Vliet, “The Copts: 'Modern Sons of the Pharaohs'?” Church History and Religious Culture 89, no. 1-3 (2009): 279.
            [2] Safwat Marzouk, Egypt as Monster in the Book of Ezekiel (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 10.
            [3] Ibid., 11.
            [4] Ibid.

            [5] Ibid., 12.

            [6] Ibid., 242.
            [7] Yvonne Haddad and Joshua Donovan, “Good Copt, Bad Copt: Competing Narratives on Coptic Identity in Egypt and the United States,” Studies in World Christianity 19 no. 3 (2013): 225.
            [8] “Who We Are,” CEOSS, last modified 2015, accessed March 19, 2016,

Friday, March 25, 2016


          In my last post, I was pretty harsh about my time in Egypt. It was true, that I did struggle with many things while in the county. However, I also had some amazing experiences and made some awesome memories! In this post I want to share a couple of stories, along with some pictures.
          First, my first full day in Egypt I celebrated my 25th birthday. This was especially exciting to me because I was in my 25th country! My group surprised me with a huge cake that night! It had tons of fruit on it and then they had me cut it into enough pieces for everyone in the group. I learned that I am not an expert cake cutter, but it was an incredible way to celebrate my birthday!
Our first few days were spent in Cairo where we met with a Christian service organization that does a lot of amazing work in Egypt, went to the Presbyterian seminary where my professor Safwat had gone to school, met with top Islamic scholars, and visited a huge Coptic church built into the rocks. At these places, we heard about some really great things happening in the country and people who were passionate about peace and trying to make Egypt a better place. I hope to write more about these specific experiences in later posts. But I just want to say that I was really inspired by the Egyptians I met and the work being done in this midst of difficult political and economic situations.
          My professor from AMBS Safwat was one of the leaders for the trip and since Egypt is his home country, he was a great person to have along on the trip. One of my fondest memories was going to a local cafe with him and four others from my group and just drinking tea and talking. We also had our own Egyptologist on the trip name Henry. Henry was really great and gave us so much information as well as told some really bad jokes. Having these two Egyptians really made the trip come alive.
          A trip to Egypt would not be complete without seeing the ancient sites. Going to the pyramids is an experience I will never forget! I got to climb on one (until security yelled at me), go in one, and then take a camel ride in front! Riding a camel had always been a dream and it was awesome being able to take a 30 minute ride on Michael Jackson (my camel's name). My mom also rode a camel and we both agree that it is better than horseback! My camel must have been quite old and well-trained because the boy leading gave me the reigns, while everyone else was led! Wow, I still cannot believe that I did that!
          After our time in Cairo, we took an overnight train to Luxor. I won't include much on the train ride, but I will say that I do NOT recommend taking trains in Egypt! I might be an adventurous person, but I think the whole group agreed that this is one experience that doesn't need repeating. In Luxor, we visited the Valley of the Kings, which once again was simply outstanding. We couldn't take pictures, but we could touch the walls with two thousand year old hieroglyphics! I have seen Egyptian artifacts in museums around the world, but experiencing it in person is completely different. I cannot describe in adequate words how awesome it was.
          After the Valley of the Kings, we boarded a four day Nile cruise. As we sailed from Luxor to Aswan, we visited a lot of ancient temples. Every one of them was unique and fun to explore. The cruise itself was also great! During the day, when the sun shone, it was so warm and I loved taking naps in the sun and while watching the banks of the Nile slowly drift by. Although at the time I was a little overwhelmed by all we saw in such a short time, looking back, I have such great memories of those explorations.

          After a day in Aswan, we took a train back to Cairo (this time the overnight train experience was even worse!) and then headed to Alexandria, stopping for lunch at a monastery. I really enjoyed hearing the history of the monastery and Coptic Christianity in Egypt. Alexandria was also a really neat city where I would love to spend more time! The new library there is magnificent and the Mediterranean Sea was beautiful, although it was kind of stormy while we were there.
          I have to say, though, that one of my favorite parts of the trip was spending it with my mom. I love my mom so much and to be able to see these ancient sites with her and have someone close to process everything with was just great. Who gets the opportunity to do something like this with their mom?!? I feel so blessed to have such an amazing woman in my life who loves me so much and is willing to put up with my travel crabbiness and go on such a crazy adventure! I wouldn't have wanted to do this trip with anyone else!

          There really are so many more stories to tell from this crazy journey, but I hope that this post displays just a little bit of how awesome Egypt was! One reason I like traveling is that things do not happen as you expect them to. Like in normal life, traveling life has its ups and downs and is not what you expect. But even in the midst of a changing identity and a structure of a tour group that I did not like, I saw some incredible things and met some amazing people and was able to do it with one of the most important people in my life.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Change of Identity in Egypt

          It feels like forever since I was in the Middle East, exploring ancient ruins. My return back to the United States was kind of tumultuous and instead of being able to continue processing what happened on my trip, I thrown into a new, very busy semester, the end of my first relationship, and trying to recover from jet lag and some bug I picked up while in Egypt. Then, after feeling like I was finally better from that first week back, I just got caught up in the busyness of life. But I realize that I need to reflect on what happened, partly because I have a paper due on Egypt that I have barely started, but also because it is an unfinished part of the journey. When I travel, I want to be able to come home changed from what I have seen and done. This change takes reflecting on the good and hard parts. As I wrote over a month ago, my time in Turkey was amazing. However, I struggled in Egypt. Below are some reflections on the change of identity I felt when I traveled to Egypt.

      One of the reasons I love to travel is that travel brings out new parts of my own identity that I have not been aware of before. Every trip is different and every time I am in a new place, I learn more about myself. Egypt was no exception to this. However, my reflections of my identity in Egypt are largely connected to my experiences in Turkey, where I had spent two weeks before arriving in Cairo. In Turkey, I lived into the identity of an independent, world traveler. This is an identity I have developed over the past five years as I have lived abroad and done a lot of traveling. Often this travel has been done with one or two close friends where we decide what we want to do and see and independently make a trip happen. I arrived in Istanbul with only a vague plan of what I wanted to see and do. I was met at the airport by my college friend Bekah and we spent our first three days staying with a friend I had met on another trip in her parent’s small flat and from these making a plan of other places in the country we wanted to visit. We spent the two weeks, making life up as we went and taking time to try to immerse within the Turkish culture. We would talk to locals as much as possible, participating in traditional meals, and drinking a lot of tea with the people we met. We also took the time to reflect on our time and our lives back home. Our theme song was “A Whole New World,” from Aladdin, with our favorite lyrics being, “No one to tell us no, or where to go, or say we’re only dreaming.” I felt myself open up in Turkey as I reveled in the freedom of unscheduled days spent exploring, chatting, and simply being. This would be a contrast to my time in Egypt.
            The other major way my time in Turkey influenced my time in Egypt was the occurrence of a suicide bombing in Istanbul on my last day in Turkey. Bekah and I were not in Istanbul at the time, but the bombing occurred at the main tourist square in Istanbul, where we had been only a week before. The suicide bomber intentionally targeted a group of tourists. This news came as a shock and we felt our sense of safety violated. Although we had been aware of political struggles in the country and the region, Bekah and I were in Turkey as tourists on vacation. I knew that some sort of attack could be possible, especially after the attacks in Paris in the fall, but I did not think that anything would actually happen when I was gone. All of a sudden the world did not feel like a safe place. As I traveled the next day to Cairo by myself, I found myself feeling scared and insecure in the world. I no longer felt like a confident, independent traveler. I arrived in Egypt not knowing what my identity was as I was confronted with a new environment and unmet expectations.
            My sense of an unsafe world was heightened with my arrival to Cairo. My group had been warned that there could be a lot of government tourist police with us as we traveled to make sure we stayed safe, but I had not expected the level of security we had. An armed security guard was on our tour bus at almost all times. Often times our bus would have a police escort as we moved through Cairo traffic. There was always people in the lobby of our hotel and they would not let us leave the hotel in big groups and would send security with us even if it was just a couple us. There was also military on the street and security guards with huge guns seemed to be everywhere. Although the security is meant to protect us as tourists and keep stability within the country, it scared me because it reminded me that the world is not a safe place and that there are people there who wanted to harm me. My identity as a white foreigner was brought to the forefront. This is an identity I have struggled with, as I do not like to be defined by American politicians and how the media portrays Americans. I strongly disagree with American foreign policy and the consumerist, individualistic culture that people associate with the United States.  However, at the same time I am a white, privileged American. This is a part of my identity that I cannot control or change.
            My identity as a white tourist in Egypt was also different than this experience in Turkey. In Turkey, I was able to stay with a local host the first couple of days and then the rest of the trip, Bekah and I stayed very cheaply at hostels. We were in tourist places and seen as tourists, but we were not extravagant in our travels and tried to go to local spots and even tried to learn Turkish in order to be immersed in the culture. In Egypt, we stayed at fancy hotels and stayed within our group most of the time. A lot of this had to do with logistics and costs. I understand this, but the transition from a seven-dollar hostel room that included Internet and breakfast to fancy hotel rooms changed the way I saw my identity. I really struggled with what I saw as extravagance and also the distance I felt from the Egyptian people. I was on buses and train, in restaurants and tourist sites with other tourists, mostly from North America. While in Turkey, I saw myself as someone engaging in the culture as a conscientious tourist, in Egypt I saw myself as a Western tourist paying to see a local culture, but remaining at a distance in order to stay comfortable. I regret that this was the case and that I did not have discussions early on in the trip to find ways to combat these feelings and find better ways to engage within the structure of the tour group. However, our schedule was busy and I did not take the necessary time to reflect on my identity and the ways I felt I was encountering and being encountered by Egypt. I was also frustrated by the lack of freedom that occurred because I was traveling with a planned tour group. I also tend to not like large groups and became shy and uncomfortable at many times during the trip. All these feelings and my inner struggle with my identity both as a tourist and as a member of a large tour group influenced the ways I experienced the identity of the Egyptians I encountered.